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Can Shopping Help Anxiety? The Psychology Behind Retail Therapy

I recently had a friend say to me (jokingly of course), "I wish my health insurance covered retail therapy." In fact a new study out by TNS Global found that half of all Americans have admitted to engaging in one form or another of retail therapy.
10/13/2014 09:48pm ET | Updated December 13, 2014
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Most people are guilty of emotional spending at one time or another. Whether you partake in retail therapy while you're sad, angry, or happy, you are bound to end up with some unneeded items and an empty wallet. So why do we spend to feel better, and how can we curb emotional spending in the future?

"What a Week! I Deserve that Handbag."

I recently had a friend say to me (jokingly of course), "I wish my health insurance covered retail therapy." In fact a new study out by TNS Global found that half of all Americans have admitted to engaging in one form or another of retail therapy. Additional studies have echoed similar findings; the majority of shoppers buy something to cheer themselves up or treat themselves in form of a celebration.

Shopping as a Form of Therapy

Although shopping is not the conventional type of therapy, it does have positive emotional effects on individuals, hence why shopping is so popular. Psychologists have found that people tend to shop the most leading up to big life transitions. For example, Americans shop the most during their lifetime prior to getting married and having a child. The shopping process, the purchases and the preparation for this new phase in life allow for more control over the situation, which in turn eases anxiety. Often these type of purchases outweigh the actual need of the product.

Many times, shopping relieves stress and anxiety, which can be useful for several individuals. Studies have shown that there are clear benefits to retail therapy. For example, a study conducted by Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health found retail therapy in moderation to be beneficial, citing that regular shopping was connected to longer life spans.

Problems Caused by Retail Therapy

However for some, this idea of retail therapy can be highly problematic. To truly understand the psychology behind problematic spending, we must touch on the idea of defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are an unconscious process that protect an individual from painful thoughts or ideas that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with. In certain cases, defense mechanisms keep unwanted thoughts and impulses from entering the conscious mind. So what do defense mechanisms have to do with over-shopping?

Denial is one of the most widely used defense mechanisms. When you use denial, you refuse to accept the reality or truth of an experience or fact. For example, believing you only drink in social situations, when in reality you drink every night. This particular defense mechanism serves over-shoppers quite well. Many individuals drowning in credit card debt have high rates of denial, and continue to spend when they can't afford to.

When Should You Be Concerned?

If your retail therapy habits are moderate in nature, your credit isn't an issue, and it does not affect your daily functioning, more power to you. Enjoy those shopping moments that decrease stress and anxiety. However, if not shopping causes you anxiety, you are spending just to spend and it's causing a financial disruption, retail therapy may have more of a negative effect than a positive one.

Best Ways to Curb the Spending

  • Budgeting and keeping your finances clean: Track your spending and take control of where your money is going. By cleaning up your finances and tracking your money, you will be able control your spending and lessen overall anxiety. Here are some tips on how to budget and clean up all your finances.
  • Balance transfer credit cards: Many people find themselves in over their heads in retail credit card debt after a major transition such as job loss or divorce. By transferring your balance to a low APR card, you'll be able to get a grip on your debt by paying down your balance versus paying just the interest each month. The key to this trick is to destroy your old credit cards and focus on paying down your balance. Here is a list of the best balance transfer credit cards.
  • Face the factors causing the overspending: If you find yourself compulsively shopping, addicted to the "buying high" regardless of the purchase, you may need to seek professional assistance. Recently, the psychological community has identified Compulsive Buying Disorder (CBD) as a possible diagnosis. CBD refers to the chronic purchasing of unneeded or unwanted things, which disrupts daily functioning. If the above description seems to fit, reaching out to your physician and/or a mental health provider is necessary.
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